Judgment and Prediction: Singapore’s Army and Its Relations with Israel
The Singapore Army, the most powerful armed force in Southeast Asia, was originally set up by Israelis, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
After Singapore became independent from Malaysia in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister and founding father of modern Singapore, immediately asked Israel to help build up Singapore’s military. Prior to that, Lee contacted India and Egypt, but both rejected Lee’s requests.
After Singapore became independent, the British army decided to withdraw all its troops from Singapore. Its security situation was challenging, hence the first generation of leaders, with Lee as the core, attached great importance to developing national defense.
In December 1965, a military delegation led by Israeli then Colonel Yaakov Elazari secretly arrived in Singapore to begin work on the completion of the local military structure. Since that day, military ties between Israel and Singapore have strengthened, making the latter one of Israel’s biggest clients of foreign arms sales.
The Israeli military delegation, led by then Colonel Yaakov Elazari, consisted of six officers and was divided into two groups. The first group, headed by Elazari, was tasked with setting up Singapore’s defense and internal security ministries. The other, led by then Lieutenant Colonel Yehuda Golan, was tasked to train and build up Singapore Armed Forces. The Israelis followed their own military model (IDF) and formed the Singapore Army consisting of both active and reserve units.
These Israeli servicemen also became the Singapore Army’s first training instructors, not only to teach basic training courses to soldiers and officers, but also to train reservists. The Israeli military delegation was composed of members trained by Rehavam Ze’evi, later Israel’s tourism minister, who was assassinated by three militants in a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001. It was Ze’evi who drew the blueprint for Singapore’s military.
Former Singaporean prime minister Goh Chok Tong visited Washington when he was in office. When he talked about Singapore’s relationship with Israel, he mentioned that, “I do not want to be misunderstood. Singapore is a friend of Israel. Israel helped Singapore build up its Armed Forces and to survive at a time when no other country in the world was confident enough in us to take the risk of doing so. We will always be grateful. Singapore’s relationship with Israel is one of the best in Asia”.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore was spending a considerable amount of money on national defense under the watchful eyes of its neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore’s defense budget has been 5–6% of GNP for several years, accounting for about 34% of the government’s annual budget.
Singapore Armed Forces have a total strength of 55,800 personnel, but it can quickly mobilize 300,000 soldiers for combat readiness. Among them, 45,000 army troops are fully mechanized and highly mobile, equipped with M1 tanks and Bionix armoured fighting vehicles. The army is the best equipped in Asia to fight the “decisive overseas battle”. Singapore Navy has a total strength of 4,500 personnel, equipped with self-made world-class landing craft, purchased La Fayette-class frigate and submarines. Singapore Air Force has a total strength of 6,000 personnel. It has F-16C/D Fighting Falcon, aerial refueling tankers, and E-2C Hawkeye aircraft. That’s a huge army for a city state of 5.6 million people.
Singapore is a small country, but it has a dynamic navy. The reason why it is “dynamic” is that the Singapore Navy has grown rapidly since it was founded in 1963 and it has become an important force controlling the Strait of Malacca. Singapore’s naval prowess took a new step forward on January 7 when the RSS Formidable, the first of its six Formidable-class stealth frigates, was launched from the DCN shipyard in Lorient, France.
In early 2001, Singapore announced a 6.5% increase in military spending to more than USD 10 billion, and signed a contract with the U.S. government to purchase 12 Apache attack helicopters for delivery in 2005.
Because of its small size and lack of strategic depth, Singapore must be able to “keep the enemy at bay”. To this end, Lee Kuan Yew came up with his famous “poison shrimp” theory, that Singapore should be a “poison shrimp” that could coexist with a “shoal of fish” but not be swallowed by “big fish”. In fact, it emphasizes that the Singapore Armed Forces must maintain an effective deterrent capability so that major countries will not dare to act rashly against Singapore. This is an important pillar of Singapore’s “total defense” policy.
To be specific, Singapore’s military security strategy has three principles: First, the “poison shrimp” principle. Singapore’s military security strategy emphasizes deterrence. It aims to deter its opponents with the country’s military combat capability and the resistance of people. Singapore has an elite force with the highest level of modernization in Southeast Asia and strong air strike and ground assault capabilities. In addition to the regular army, it also has 250,000 reserve troops, which can be prepared for war within six hours. At the same time, the country’s economic, social, civil, and psychological resilience is also rather strong.
The second is the “shoal of fish” principle. As a small country with a small population and its armed forces have no combat experience, it is difficult for Singapore to ensure national security on its own. Therefore, it attaches great importance to joint defense, seeks collective security, and relies on collective strength to contain potential enemies. Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong compared Singapore to a small fish, which has to stay alive with other fish and rely on group self-protection. Singapore’s security system has three levels. The first level is to maintain and strengthen joint defense with Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The second level is to promote political and economic cooperation among ASEAN countries and create conditions to expand the scope of ASEAN cooperation to regional security. The third level is to support the UN in fully playing its role in safeguarding international security.
Third, the principle of “big fish”. Singapore relies on a two-pronged approach of joining the “shoal of fish” and holding the big ones back. This big fish alludes to the United States.
Singapore believes that “the U.S. is a friendly big fish that can prevent other big fish from coming to the region to make trouble”. Therefore, it has always supported the United States to maintain a military presence in the region, and to bring American military forces into the country. If someone wants to eat up the small fish (i.e., Singapore), they should not only consider the five countries’ joint defense and ASEAN, but also the big fish (the United States). In this way, Singapore can use the strength of other countries to achieve the purpose of ensuring its own security.
I would like to emphasize that courage is a powerful means of a military organization when the human resources of a country are abundant, and the most successful example of this is China. The Chinese army fought to a draw with the U.S. army in the Korean War, an astonishing feat built on an endless supply of human resources. As long as the social organization is effective and able to provide abundant human resources, such an approach will be successful, and the requirements for command, strategy, and tactics will be simplified. The problem is that when a country has limited human resources and cannot rely on them, sophisticated engineering science will be the only option. At such a time, war becomes an engineering project that requires, like any engineering project, rigorous calculations, repeated derivations, the most rational possible scheduling, and the realization of the right strategy and tactics. The success of all these combinations, coupled with the courage of the army, is the basis for the victory of such a country with a shortage of human resources over a great power.
Small countries can overcome big ones, and Israel is a good example. Israel’s soldiers have been able to keep winning battles against fearless Palestinians. Its success was not an accident; it was a success of military thinking. I would like to emphasize that this fact is still not accepted or recognized in China today, as one can observe in the comments of those Internet celebrities and generals. The film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is very popular in China today, which also fully illustrates this point. However, I still believe that time will prove the correctness of my views and thoughts. I think one of the most unfortunate things about China is that to this day, China actually inherits the “glorious tradition of the Whampoa Military Academy”, which overemphasizes and relies on the sacrificial spirit of the army and soldiers. Unfortunately, this is an archaic and dangerous non-modern military tradition that requires the sacrifice of a large number of human resources.
For the future, it is worth noting that Israel has succeeded, Singapore can imitate and learn from it, and Taiwan can likewise do the same.
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